Meet the tellers for this year's Cape Girardeau Storytelling Festival

Friday, April 8, 2011

One thing is certain: Storytellers talk a lot and oftentimes, they talk to themselves. They recite stories in the car, in front of imaginary friends or inside their heads before finally getting on stage at storytelling festivals around the country and telling it to audiences. Today through Sunday, these six storytellers will regale audiences in Cape Girardeau with their stories about life in this crazy world. The festival runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

A three-day pass is $35 for adults, $25 for college students and children 6 to 18. A one-day pass is $25 for adults, $15 for college students and children 6 to 18. A family three-day pass is $115 and allows for two adults and four children younger than 18.

Linda Dust


Linda Dust started her storytelling career behind a guitar. She switched from singing folk songs to telling folk stories and hasn't stopped since. Dust first took the stage as a teller at the Prairie Tales Storytelling Festival outside Petersburg, Ill. She used to practice storytelling in the car on the way to and from work. "I'm sure that there are people all over central Illinois that have laughed at the crazy woman talking to herself as she drove down the highway," she said.

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? Look for a local guild or storytelling group. Being able to learn to tell stories and to tell them in a safe environment is the best way to hone your craft before telling in front of an audience. Tell only stories that you really love. The longer you are involved with storytelling, the more you'll realize that it is as much about the stories choosing you as you choosing them.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? This is my dream job. Honestly, I can't think of anything better than telling stories and singing ballads for people who love them as much as I do.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? I'm sure I'd be working somewhere, but not sure where. My last job was working as a sales rep, but the company closed.

How do you overcome stage fright? Believe it or not, when I first started telling stories, I could barely make it through one story. My knees were knocking, and I was shaking so hard that I didn't think I'd finish. I had a dreadnaught sized guitar back then and it took me a while to come out from behind of it. I asked lots of different entertainers their secrets for overcoming stage fright and they all had really good advice. The BEST advice I got was from a singer who told me that the shakes are just adrenaline. The body reacts, but the MIND interprets. He said that he preferred to think of what he did as sharing what he loved with friends instead of performing in front of strangers. That really struck me and made an immediate difference on how I felt on stage. I still get nervous -- that is a good thing -- but I'm not frightened anymore.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? I was telling stories on stage at a family arts fair in Champaign, Ill. I had friends in the audience and I noticed that they were snickering. Usually I try to stay "in the story," but I got worried that there was something showing that hadn't ought to be showing. It was the first time I'd worn that particular skirt and it was an outdoor event so I was afraid that there might be light shining through the skirt. I kept on telling the story and noticed my friends were looking down at the stage more than at me. I managed a glance down and saw that a little girl of about 4 or so had crawled up on the stage and was laying nearly at my feet. I wasn't sure what to do, so I kept telling the story. Her mom came toward the stage and I thought that she would pull her off. She didn't. She just pulled the little girls dress down and went back and sat in her seat. I finished the story and just looked at the little girl. She stayed on the stage till I finished my set. I wasn't sure how to make her go back, so I just let her stay.

Elizabeth Ellis


Elizabeth Ellis has been designated an American Masterpiece Touring Artist by the National Endowment for the Arts. She was a children's librarian in Dallas for several years before deciding to start telling her own stories. Ellis tells Appalachian and Texas tales with heroic American women. She said the important part about getting on stage and telling a story is not to let the fear silence you.

How do you practice? It's hard to practice storytelling, because if there aren't any listeners, it really isn't storytelling. When I was a little girl most of my best friends were imaginary. Mostly I practice by telling to imaginary listeners.

How do you overcome stage fright? I don't know that you ever really overcome it. Perhaps you just learn to make peace with it. A little fear keeps you sharp and on your toes. It keeps you from getting complacent. The important part is not to let fear silence you.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? A stand-up comic. Or maybe a circus performer.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? I'd probably be a midwife.

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? That would be to work hard at your craft. Anyone can improve if they work at it. Never turn down the chance to tell a story. You learn to tell by telling, not by reading about it.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? Are you kidding? Where should I start? Once, my mother sent me a beautiful gauze top as a gift. I was eager to wear it to a big outdoor festival. The wind didn't really begin to pick up until I was on stage. A sudden gust blew my top up over my head. Boy, did the audience ever get a show that day!

Rev. Robert Jones


When the Rev. Robert Jones tells a story, you tap your feet. Jones has opened for B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker. He sits firmly in the American roots genre, but incorporates country, folk, gospel and other tastes into his music, which he weaves into his stories and uses to tell other stories.

How do you practice? I'm not sure how to answer that. I guess I find a story or it finds me, and I roll it around in my head and I tell it to myself. If it sounds interesting to me, I hope that it will to someone else. I guess the long and short of it is -- I talk to myself a lot!

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? I'm not sure that I am in a position to give anyone advice, but I think that all performers would do well to remember that our talents are gifts that we are given for a purpose. When we find that purpose it gives meaning and power to the gift.

How do you overcome stage fright? I always try to remember that no one can do what you do better than you. There will always be people that you admire and that are greatly skilled, but no one can tell your story better than you, if it is your story that you are telling.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? I think that I might like to be a painter.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? Practicing to become a better musician.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? I think that every performer has been embarrassed more times than they could count. Maybe one of the worse for me was to have someone request that I perform a song that I had written and recorded, only to discover that I could not remember either the words or the chords. I had to go home and learn my own song.

Kathe Brinkmann


Kathe Brinkmann started telling stories as soon as they started coming to her. She turned her natural talent into a profession when she became a founding member of the Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Storytelling Guild in 2001. Aside from touring the festival circuit, Brinkmann hosts and produces "The Stories We Tell," a cable program on UPTV channel 6 in Urbana that combines storytellers, concerts and interviews with authors.

How do you practice? I begin by selecting the stories I wish to tell. If there is a theme, I search for appropriate stories. I develop a program and then I make a folder of the stories. I usually type out my version of the folktale. Then I read them before I go to bed. This helps me remember the story. Then I practice out loud. I make changes to the story the more I tell it. Then I will tell the story to a friend or audience and get feedback. This helps me shape the story. It evolves. Before the concert I do "warm-ups" but repeating tongue-twisters. This helps me to be more articulate and not stumble over my words.

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? Read a lot of folktale collections, listen to other tellers and tell stories that you love.

How do you overcome stage fright? Being prepared helps me. I also give myself a pep talk beforehand to rev up my enthusiasm. I think of the nervous energy as my friend. It is the energy I need to give a good concert.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? Hmmm, not sure. Maybe a radio show host?

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? In my "other" life I work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the director of the Biotechnology Career Services office. I am a career counselor for graduate students in bio-sciences.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? A few years back, I was telling a story and I went completely blank for the next part. We had a sign language interpreter and she whispered "grandfather." It sparked my memory, and I finished the story. All the tellers had to give a copy of the story to the interpreter prior to the concert and thank goodness she remembered my story. After the concert, she came up to me and apologized for whispering to me. Upon reflection she thought that maybe I was just dramatically pausing, but in reality, she saved me a great embarrassment.

Bil Lepp


Bil Lepp appeared in Cape Girardeau for the 2009 Storytelling Festival. His outrageous tales can't be true, but with his storytelling ability, you can't help but believe him. Lepp has won the West Virginia Liars' contest five times, and you'll find out why during his time on the stage.

How do you practice? I generally practice in front of the audience. The first run of any story is for my kids (10 and 7 1/2 -- don't forget the 1/2) and my wife at the supper table. This trio is very story savvy and really does give good input. My kids have grown up listening to the best storytellers in the world. They are sort of the surrogate grandkids of the storytelling circuit, so they know what they are talking about. Then it's on to the audiences. I like to present a new story for the first time to the biggest audience I can find. Big audiences are far less inhibited than small audiences, and with a big audience you're almost guaranteed that somebody is going to get your jokes, even the most obscure ones.

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? If you aren't confident in your story, your audience isn't going to trust you. Know your stuff and believe it, even if you made it up. Furthermore, find a subject no one else is telling about. Carve your own niche from the get go. And lastly, no matter how smart you think you are, your audience knows everything. The collective intelligence of the audience trumps your knowledge base every time. Don't say submarine if you're talking about submersible. Don't say watt if you mean volt. You can't slip anything by.

How do you overcome stage fright? Stage what? I love what I do. The only time I get nervous is when I'm doing a story for the first time. I'm not one of those performs who vomits every time before I go on stage. I doubt accountants and florists get nervous every time they go to work, so why should I? My job is fun and the audiences are almost always great. Anybody that produces any kind of art, from poetry to music to pottery has to learn early on that rejection is part of the job. Writers go to their mail boxes everyday well aware that there are likely rejection notices in the box. You have to learn to live with the fact that not everyone is going to enjoy your art. People have a right to not respond to my work, but I believe in what I do and I work hard at it.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? When I was in grad school I worked at Lowe's. I was the guy out front that hand loaded your Quikcrete and cinder blocks. I liked that job. Successful novelist wouldn't be bad. And there's always swamp boat operator/tour guide.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? I would still be writing. I might still be pastoring. If I weren't a storyteller I'd probably be frowning more often.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? One of my first festivals ever, I got on stage and right away I knew something was wrong, but couldn't pin point it. It was a cold, fall day and I was wearing several layers. As soon as I started speaking a little girl in the front raised her hand, to ask a question. I pressed on, ignoring her. Fifteen minutes later, the story done, her hand still raised, I said, "Yes?" She said, "Your fly is down." And it wasn't just down. My shirt tail was hanging through.

Willy Claflin


Willy Claflin is a Harvard-educated, folk-singing, animal-loving storyteller from New Hampshire. His act incorporates puppets, toys, noise-makers and, above all, humor. Claflin was a favorite from the first Storytelling Festival in 2008, with Maynard the Moose, Boring Beaver and Socklops. His well-paced and creative stories will surely be a hit again this year. He compares storytelling to digging a ditch. "It's really how much time you put into it," he said.

How do you practice? I practice by telling stories out loud. I've got a work studio, so even if I'm doing a piece where I have to shout, or play the guitar, I don't have to worry about bothering anybody. I used to tape record myself and then play the rehearsals back, to get a good idea of the rhythm and pacing of a tale, but now I just notice these things as I'm going along, and make corrections where necessary. I probably tell most stories out loud by myself at least 30 or 40 times before I tell them in public

What piece of advice would you give to budding storytellers? Well, a couple of things. First, try all kinds of stories: myths and legends, tall tales, personal stories, ballads, improvised tales, folk tales from around the world; try telling a wide variety of stories, just to give yourself a chance to find out what you like best.

Second, whatever you do, however good you're getting, never call yourself a "master storyteller." This is, oddly enough, a common mistake that new tellers often make in their promotional material. It's OK if someone else calls you that -- especially if you've been to the national festival a couple of times. But if you call yourself that, festivals will know you're a beginner.

Finally, getting good at storytelling is rather like the process of digging a ditch; it's really a matter of how much time you put in. As Woody Guthrie once said about song-writing: "You'll be just as good as the number of hours, minutes, months, weeks and years you spend doing it." This may seem daunting, but actually it's pretty encouraging! You don't have to be some kind of creative genius. You just have to do it and do it and do it!

How do you overcome stage fright? That bothered me a lot when I started off in my 30s and 40s. But that was a long time ago. Then another performer said to me: "Take care of the audience -- that's your job, to take care of the audience. They may be nervous, or tired and in need of a lift; a break from their everyday troubles. Welcome them in; make them feel at home." This was some of the best advice I ever got! I stopped thinking about myself, and started thinking about the audience instead. Ever since then, I've been having fun.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would your dream job be? This is my dream job; this and writing children's books. I'm very lucky. I get to make a living doing what I love best. I'm very grateful.

If you weren't a storyteller, what would you really be doing? Well, my first ambition was to be a musician, so probably that's what I'd focus on. But I guess that wouldn't be all that different. Now I tell stories and sing an occasional song. If I were a primarily a musician, I'd sing songs and tell an occasional story.

Has anything embarrassing ever happened to you on stage? Well, I've been lucky there, too -- nothing very embarrassing has happened to me on stage. But like most performers, I've had a fair number of what we call "gigs from hell." You know: nonstop screaming babies, cell phones going off, sound systems failing, nine people in a tent that seats 400, and on and on. All part of the adventure of live performance!

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